Pioneer of Corporate Design for London Transport

Plaque erected 23 November, 1951 by London Transport at St Peter’s School, York YO3O 6AB

Inscription reads:

In tribute to Frank Pick 1878-1941 a scholar of this school. He served his fellow-men, made transport an art and sought beauty and good design in all things

As managing director of London Underground in the 1920s, Frank Pick transformed the capital’s uncoordinated transport system and created one of the world’s first examples of corporate branding utilising the UK’s most talented graphic designers, typographers and architects.

Frank Pick was born on 23 November 1878 at Spalding, Lincolnshire. He was the first child of Francis and his wife, Fanny. Although a humble draper, Francis had originally wanted to become a lawyer; he transferred his ambitions to his eldest child. In 1883, the family moved to York and, in 1893, Frank won a scholarship to St Peter’s School. Founded by St Paulinus of York in AD 627, St Peter’s is the third oldest school in the UK and the fourth oldest in the world. In 1895 and 1896, he was awarded the Dean of York’s prize for mathematics.

On failing to gain a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford, in March 1897 Frank was articled to George Crombie, a solicitor in York. Although he qualified in 1902 and completed a law degree at the University of London, Frank chose not to follow the legal profession and, remaining in York, accepted a position at the North Eastern Railway in the company’s traffic statistics department. In 1904 he became assistant to the general manager, Sir George Gibb, and this promotion enabled him to marry Mabel Mary Caroline Woodhouse in the same year.

The plaque to Frank Pick is inside St Peter’s School, on the left hand side under the archway.

London Underground

George Gibb was appointed managing director of Underground Electric Railways Limited (UERL) in London in 1906 and he invited Frank Pick to move south with him. In the first decade of the 20th century, the London underground network was expanding and the lines were operated by a number of companies. UERL ran the District Railway and, during 1906 and 1907, constructed three deep-level lines: the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway. Some initial financial problems had to be overcome before the Underground could become economically sustainable. Construction costs were inevitably high, estimates of passenger numbers were found to be over-optimistic and, as a result, ticket prices had to be low to compete with the rapidly expanding, street-level electric tramway network and motor buses.

Suburban expansion

In the early 1900s, London’s suburbs were being developed to house an increasingly prosperous middle class. Improved transport links were essential for these developments to be successful and each new Underground station acted as a stimulus to suburban estates. Existing Victorian railway lines close to London were also integrated into the Underground network providing further opportunities for housebuilders.

London to the north of the River Thames was the primary area of growth for the Underground and this is reflected in the network today. Golders Green was a small rural hamlet at the beginning of the 20th century until the arrival of the railway in June 1907 stimulated a wave of development. The new station, an extension of UERL’s Hampstead line, would also serve Hampstead Garden Suburb which was undergoing construction. One of the very first posters commissioned by Frank Pick in 1908 aimed to promote the benefits of living in Golders Green. It shows an idealised scene of suburban life with the lady of the house reclining in a manicured garden and the master watering the hollyhocks in the flower border. This was a lifestyle which Frank adopted for his own family, moving into one of the new houses at 15 Wildwood Road in 1913. The house was designed by Yorkshire-born Arts and Crafts architect George Lister Sutcliffe who, alongside more well-known architects such as Edwin Lutyens, designed a large number of other dwellings in the new suburb.

Corporate identity

Advertising and marketing were, at the time, relatively new activities and their role in increasing sales and profitability were only just becoming to be recognised. In 1909, Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield), the general manager of the Underground Group, put Frank Pick in charge of the company’s publicity and commercial advertising. Revenue from advertising was a major part of the Underground’s income but there was no co-ordination of the placing of posters and other advertising material. Entrances to Underground stations and platforms were plastered with posters and notices so that even the name of the station was difficult to see. Frank’s solution to this problem would lead to the creation of the Underground “brand”, possibly the world’s first example of a fully integrated corporate identity. He would go on to co-ordinate all key aspects of design for the company drawing on the skills of the UK’s leading architects, artists and typographers.

Frank’s first achievement was the creation of the distinctive station nameboard. Initially this was a solid red disc with a central bar displaying the name of the station. Later, this evolved into the bar and circle device which is still in use today. Posters were also integrated into the station entrance and platform design; their size was standardised and they were grouped in clearly defined panels. With his characteristic obsession for detail, Frank then turned his attention to the design of the posters themselves.

Art of the poster

Although he had no design training, Frank soon got to know the best printers and lithographers in London. The Arts and Crafts Movement had provided a stimulus to the art of printing and book and magazine illustration, pioneered by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press which was established in 1891. In the 1890s, the Central School of Arts and Crafts had been founded under W.R. Lethaby and, through Frank’s contacts with the school, he was able to commission the most talented teachers and students in London including a high proportion of women. Although becoming a professional artist was not thought to be a suitable occupation for a lady, according to the standards of the day, the “crafts”, including drawing and illustration, were considered appropriate activities for ladies.

Over the following decades, Frank would commission work from the leading artists and designers of the day. Subject matter varied widely. Early posters were designed to reassure the public about the safety of the Underground and the use of revolutionary electric lifts and the first escalators. Later posters featured the many destinations of the transport system – London Zoo, museums, galleries, parks, countryside – with the aim of boosting passenger numbers. Frank was aware at the time that he was creating a unique legacy and, from the start, he offered copies of the posters to the Victoria & Albert Museum. After some opposition, he eventually gained the support of Martin Hardie, curator of the museum’s prints and drawings collection, and the V&A was pleased to accept free copies of the complete output of Underground posters resulting in a unique archive.

Underground marketing strategy

Frank was to form a close and effective working relationship with Albert Stanley; they brought different but complementary skills to a successful management partnership. It was Albert who persuaded the other two underground companies to work together on a joint marketing strategy, promoting the system as the Underground and introducing simplified ticketing across the network. The first pocket map was introduced in 1908 showing the colour-coded lines overlaid on a simplified street map of central London, a map which would subsequently be revolutionised. In 1912-3, the UERL expanded taking over the two remaining independent lines and also the London General Omnibus company. Frank was promoted to Commercial Manager and he set about integrating the rail and bus services to optimise the service to customers.

First World War

The outbreak of the First World War was to stall the development of the London Underground and the skills of the Underground management team were to be called on to help the war effort. Following the election of David Lloyd George as Prime Minister in 1916, Sir Albert Stanley was appointed as President of the Board of Trade and Frank was drafted in to deal with a crisis in the supply of domestic fuel and lighting. However, his work at UERL continued and he had several new challenges in wartime including the design of suitable posters.

To make the posters communicate more effectively, essential in a time of war, Frank had already been considering developing a clearer typeface which would be standardised across the company. In 1913, he had already come into contact with the decorative artist Macdonald Gill, younger brother of Eric Gill, and met his friend, Edward Johnston, the leading calligrapher of the day. Johnston was commissioned to design the Underground typeface which, in a modified version, is still in use today. Initially, the Johnston type was used on posters with no pictorial content such as notices concerning the use of Underground stations as bomb shelters. Eric Gill would design the famous Gill Sans typeface, inspired by Johnston Sans, for the Monotype Corporation in 1928.

Design in industry

Before the war, Germany had taken the lead in the application of modern industrial design to industry and the Deutsche Werkbund, a group of architects, artists, craftworkers and manufacturers, had been established in 1907 to promote the contribution designers could make to industry. In the UK, the Design and Industries Association was formed in 1915. Frank was a founder member, alongside other leading figures who would play a major part in the design of the London Underground in the post-war period, including architect Charles Holden, designer Harold Stabler and printer Harold Curwen.

Following the war, Frank was made Joint Assistant Managing Director of UERL in 1921 and sole MD in 1928. The design of the posters became more radical, influenced by the modern art movements on the continent. America-born Edward McKnight Kauffer was one of Frank’s most well-known discoveries designing a total of 140 posters for the Underground. Frank’s pool of designers also included Royal College of Art students and teachers, Edward Bawden, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Enid Marx and students from the Slade such as Rex Whistler.

Underground architecture

The extension of the Hampstead line south to Morden presented Frank with the opportunity of developing a ‘a new architectural idiom’ for the Underground stations. Following a visit to the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925, Frank commissioned architect Charles Holden to develop a new design strategy for the Morden line stations. Over a 15-year period, Holden would come up with a radical new concept combining a stripped down classical geometry, executed in white Portland stone, with innovative lighting techniques and the slick incorporation of Underground signage, ticketing machines and advertising posters. Holden’s masterly new flagship station at Piccadilly Circus was completed in 1928 followed by the London Underground headquarters, with its controversial sculptures by Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein, in 1929. After a tour of modern architecture in northern Europe with Frank in 1930, Holden took his design concepts even further in the creation of the new stations for the Piccadilly line, 1931-3, which are considered to be his finest work for the Underground.

An icon of modern graphic design was to be created in 1931 when a young engineering draughtsman, Harry Beck, designed the diagrammatic Underground map. In a radical move, Beck abandoned geographical accuracy, apart from a stylised representation of the River Thames, making the distances between stations equal. The map would be easier to read and complex journeys simpler to plan. Frank was, at first, sceptical, but agreed to a trial printing of the map in 1933. It was met with enthusiasm by passengers and has become the most widely recognised symbol of London Underground.

The unification of transport in the capital moved further forward with the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board, soon to be known as London Transport, in 1933. Lord Ashfield was the first chairman and Frank was the vice-chairman and chief executive. After a short period of expansion including line extensions and the design of new rolling stock, the deteriorating economic and political situation in Europe began to impact. In 1938, at the age of 60, Frank admitted to periods of ‘weariness and disappointment’. He had devoted most of his working life to London Transport and now the strain began to take its toll.

In the months running up to the declaration of war in 1939, Frank was busy with air raid precautions planning and he oversaw the massive civilian evacuation scheme which involved moving 600,000 Londoners thought to be at risk out of the city. After a disagreement with Lord Ashfield, Frank left London Transport in May 1940. For a short time, he worked for the Ministry of Information. On 7 November 1941, he died at his house in Hampstead leaving London with a design legacy which has only recently come to be fully appreciated.


Christian Barman, The Man Who Built London Transport, A Biography of Frank Pick, Newton Abbot, 1979

Oliver Green, Frank Pick’s London, Art, Design and the Modern City, London, 2013


© Richard Wilcock